Cover photo © 2022 Laura Carbone
There a lot of great guitarists and songwriters out there, but you’ll search high and low for anyone more focused and forthright than Gabe Stillman who’s still in his mid-20s but already a proven talent with few peers.
Born in 1995 and a native of Williamsport, Pa. – a community of 28,000 or so folks who rejoice each year when the Little League World Series comes to town, he established himself as a rising star at the 2019 International Blues Challenge, where he captured the Gibson Guitar Award, which goes to the best fret master in the competition.
It’s no wonder that he’s worked with true blues royalty on the two albums he’s released since – sharing credits with Mark Wenner and the Nighthawks on one and then following it up with another that was produced by Anson Funderburgh and featuring appearances from several stars on the Texas music scene.
But talk to Gabe, as we did recently, and you’ll discover that he’s one of the most grounded, focused folks in an artform that usually requires toiling in the shadows for decades before achieving stardom.
“My story is atypical,” Stillman admits. “I’m not from Louisiana, Mississippi, Chicago…not from any of these places where one would find the blues in an organic sorta way. I don’t come from New Orleans or the Mississippi Delta, where just being from there can give an artist a ‘right’ to play the blues. I come from a place where classic rock and country music is just about all you hear on the radio.
“We’re not an area that’s known for having deep roots in the blues. It speaks to the power of the blues — and makes me unique in a way. It draws us in no matter where we come from. And that’s what draws the rest of the world into it, too.”
Gabe was eight years old when he picked up the six-string for the first time. A saxophone player in elementary school, he lost interest in the instrument after falling in love with the music of AC/DC, KISS and other guitar-led bands that dominated the local airwaves. His mom bought him lessons but playing well was as difficult for him as it would have been to attempt to climb Mount Everest.
“I didn’t get beyond doing ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ and ‘Jingle Bells,’” he confesses. “Even at that age, I was wanting to learn rock-‘n’-roll songs…‘Smoke on the Water’ and all of that typical guitar stuff. And all I had was a cheap hand-me-down Yamaha acoustic from my older brother.”
At the time, his hands were so small, there was no way to advance on the instrument. After eight frustrating months, he laid down the guitar and turned to sports and other activities, finally picking it up again at age 11 when he got excited about it in an altogether different way.
“Things like YouTube were first happening,” Gabe remembers, “and I was getting exposed to live video of musicians doing what they do and the way they looked on stage…what was happening between the musicians and the audience. It really sucked me in.
“I remember going to my parents and saying: ‘I wanna give guitar a shot again.’”
Fortunately for Stillman, the timing was right. Six years earlier, a group of forward-thinking Williamsport residents launched the Uptown Music Collective, a 503c non-profit that was showing a high success rate in teaching youngsters how to sing and play multiple instruments. Open to people of all ages, the organization’s main focus is getting students to play together in group situations – something that enables them to advance at a faster pace than they would if they were simply practicing at home alone.
After determining the student’s favorite music and, hopefully, his goals, instructors draw up individual lesson plans that include simple exercises that build confidence and eventually enable the youngster to learn full songs easier and quicker down the road.
Now one of the group’s foremost graduates, Stillman is still deeply involved with the organization, both as an instructor and member of its planning board, using the same Q&A routine to initiate new talents, altering the lesson plan to accommodate their different musical interests. And dozens of graduates have used their training to achieve future success in music and other careers.
“My mom got me an electric guitar and got me enrolled, and I ran with it,” Gabe says. “I wanted to play like (AC/DC founder/lead guitarist) Angus Young, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton.
“But my teachers had such a great knowledge of music that they told me that Angus’ favorite guitarists were B.B. King, Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker — and that Page and Clapton were both really deep blues guys as well.
“‘We’ve got to start you with the blues,’ they said, ‘and that’s gonna get you to playing like you wanna play. They’re all playing blues…just faster!’”
It didn’t take long, Stillman says, before he “fell down the rabbit hole. It spoke to me in such a deeper way than the rock music I was listening to. It wasn’t ‘oh, that’s music that sounds good.’ I identified it on an emotional level.
“Even today, as someone who plays blues for a living, I still think that element is what pulled me in. It’s never something that you can clearly define. But for me, as I’ve matured and my musical vocabulary has expanded, I believe that blues is folk music…music for people to enjoy, not just for musicians.”
No matter what your musical taste, Gabe insists, if it speaks to you, it’s vital. But there’s something unique about the blues, noting: “I’m not a jazz musician. To appreciate some aspects of it, for example, you have to be hyper intellectual. To appreciate blues, you have to be hyper emotional…separate the brain from the heart. Jazz doesn’t always have that emotional connection.”
To his ear, blues, country and ethnic music are especially appealing despite their seeming technical simplicity because they speak to the soul and bare deep feelings about every aspect of human existence – everything from falling in or out of love, struggling to make ends meet to celebrating joy and everything in between – something that can be related through a simple three-chord progression and even without the necessity of lyrics.
“Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Ronnie Earl, Jimmie Vaughan and all of these people I’ve grown up studying and listening to…there’s subject matter in the notes that they’re playing,” Stillman says. “I get the same thing from harmonica, sax and piano players, too. They’re all saying something – and baring their souls – without words and you’re understanding it.
“And the people who are greatest at it are the ones who can strip away all of themselves to do it.”
Even in his teens, Gabe knew instinctively that his future would be in the blues. When he told his friends, however, he was met by comments that included: “Are you sure, man? You’re not gonna make a lot of money doin’ that.”
“It’s not about that,” he responded. “I have to do it. It’s magic!”
When he finally started playing out at age 13, he was overwhelmed by audience reaction – something that solidified his mindset. The emotional connection he made while performing Buddy Guy’s slow burner, “The First Time I Met the Blues,” at an Uptown Collective Showcase, and the feelings instilled that day still bring delight today. “That just pulled me in further,” he says. “It felt really good – and I kept goin’ after it. And I’m very, very grateful.”
By the time he was 14, Stillman was gigging almost every weekend, learning the ropes in Uptown’s Youngblood Blues Band and jams sponsored by the Billtown Blues Association. The first time he performed in Memphis came when Billtown sent Youngblood as its representative at the IBC Youth Showcase.
“It was a great way to cut my teeth,” Gabe insists. “I’d been studying B.B. King and all of the Stax music, and I had expectations of what it would be like. But I felt the ghosts of Beale Street right away. With all the musicians in town for the IBCs, there was really a heaviness to it because of all that’s come from there.”
By his own admission, Stillman says he’s never enjoyed school. And, fortunately, his parents were understanding. After a sit-down one day, they agreed that he enroll in advanced classes – something that enabled him to graduate high school after what would have been his junior year and subsequently was accepted into the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
As a small-town boy in a big-city world, the relocation to Boston proved difficult because for the 17 year old. Even so, it proved exhilarating, too, Gabe says, because it exposed him to the full spectrum of world music.
One of his most interesting challenges involved teaming with students from other disciplines to play music outside his comfort zone. Often, the other artist was playing an instrument foreign to the blues, and both students were always required to play tunes from each other’s area of interest. As difficult as it might seem, the exchange frequently proved magical because of the players’ innate ability to communicate when trading notes.
Stillman only spent two and a half years in Beantown, earning his degree at age 19 in 2015 and immediately moving back home, where his professional career launched when he was invited to join the house band at The Finish Line Café for its Tuesday-night jam sessions.
“It reintroduced me to playing in bars,” he remembers, “and out of that, I formed my band and started to play around and learn the ropes. Berklee taught me a lot of things, but they don’t teach you how to book a gig, how much money you’re supposed to be making or anything like that.
“I went to ‘med school,’ now it’s time to be a ‘surgeon!’”
Steadily building a local following, the Gabe Stillman Band captured top honors in the local IBC competition in March 2016 and served as Billtown’s representative in Memphis the following January. But for them, the event ended almost as quickly as it had begun.
Undeterred, however, Stillman started breaking down every aspect of that performance and dedicated himself even more to his craft. After capturing top honors at his home club in 2018, he recorded his first CD, The Grind, in a lineup that included bassist Colin Beatty, drummer Jesse Roedts and harp player Shane Sager along with a special guest appearance from another rising star, guitarist McKinley James, the son of drummer Jason Smay, who played for decades with JD McPherson and The Straitjackets.
Competing in Tennessee against 101 other full bands in 2019, Gabe drew rave reviews for his attack on a cover of Otis Rush’s “Double Troubles” and his group made it all the way to the finals. St. Louis’ Ms. Hy-C & Fresh Start took top honors that year, but Stillman’s fretwork was so impressive that he took home the Gibson Guitar Award as top axe man, following in the footsteps of an impressive list of former honorees that includes Michael Burks, Jonn Del Toro Richardson, Sean Carney, Nick Schnebelen, JP Soars and Mr. Sipp, among others.
“I was the lucky one,” he says. “I grew up being taught always to be confident but humble. And it was a very humbling experience as a guitar player. It still blows me away. I’m not sure how I achieved it, but it’s a thing – and I’m very grateful for it.
“I always use ‘air quotes’ with my fingers when I say ‘best guitar player,’ too,” he says modestly, “because I don’t think there is such a thing. There are a lot of really, really great guitar players out there who I love.
“And none of us in the band expected to go all the way to the finals.”
As any IBCs competitor will tell you, the ability to network with industry people, club owners and artists from around the world is one of the biggest benefits of the competition, often outweighing the event itself. And for Gabe, “it was a whole other education unto itself.”
Rubbing shoulders with top blues talent paid off in many ways, too.
“It always feels good to get a pat on the back from guys I’ve grown up listening to,” he insists. “There’s a great sense of mentorship. One of the first seasoned musicians I met professionally was Mark Wenner from The Nighthawks. The first time I went to a Nighthawks show, I was invited on stage. The way that he welcomed me and the friendship that he put forth was amazing. And Anson Funderburgh and Ronnie Earl are others.
“I’ve learned so-o-o much because of their friendship – and it’s not even necessarily a verbal thing. People haven’t necessarily sat me down and said: ‘Here’s what you gotta do.’
“Just watching them perform and the way they conduct themselves…it’s just an amazing part of the lineage of blues music and the aural tradition of passing this music down from one generation to the next. And I don’t take that for granted because all of them have devoted themselves to a hard life of living on the road and all of the stuff that comes with it.
“The fact that they see the same hunger in me is inspiring!”
Thanks to his success in Memphis, tours and a festival appearances kept him busy through the winter, and 2020 was shaping up to be a banner year. “I actually quit my job at Uptown Music Collective because I was going to be on the road so much,” Stillman says. “But all those plans went away because of COVID. And the school closed, too, meaning I couldn’t get my job back.”
With plenty of time on his hands to plan for a better future, Gabe went to work laying the groundwork for his next album. A self-admitted poor multi-tasker who works best when focusing on only one aspect of his career, he had few options other than to put performing and rehearsing aside to concentrate on songwriting.
It’s as difficult, he says, for him to name his favorite tunesmith as it is to name his favorite guitarist, but he draws inspiration from Willie Dixon, Charles Brown, Doc Pomus and Doyle Bramhall in the blues because of their ability to compose lyrics that add luster to even the most mundane aspects of everyday life, pointing out the metaphor-rich opening of Willie’s “Spoonful” as an example: “It could be a spoonful of diamonds./It could be a spoonful of gold./But just a spoon of your precious love can satisfy my soul.”
Away from the blues, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Jason Isbell, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Smokey Robinson and some hip-hop artists all are appealing, too, he says, because they instill a sense of their own humanity into songs that use plain language to describe complex day-to-day struggles.
“Lyrics aren’t everything, but they’re incredibly important,” Stillman says. “I think that’s something that sometimes gets lost in modern pop music. If you look at the poetry in Motown of the ‘60s, it’s as beautiful as Shakespeare. Listen to the music on the radio today and…don’t even get me started on that…there’s just not a lot of poetry there!”
Unfortunately, he believes, current blues songwriting can be problematic, too.
“If I hear one more song about big women or bad whiskey or how I was born to play the blues…c’mon!” he says. “It’s all been said a lot of times before by people who’ve said it a whole lot better!
“To move the blues forward, one of the things that’s important to me is not recycling the same old things. And we have to be relevant as songwriters to do so. We live in a different world than the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. And we can’t lose the ability to write poetry and be eloquent.”
The pandemic proved to be a font of inspiration for new material, Stillman insists, because of everything every human was going through…being forced to be closer to one another on one extreme and pushed farther and farther away from each other, too, while also building new relationships out of necessity that didn’t exist before.
His next foray into the studio produced Flying High, an album on which he took top billing despite joining forces with Wenner the Nighthawks – a partnership came about far easier than you might think. “I’d done a favor for a friend who has a studio in 2019,” Gabe says, “and he gave me some studio time.
“I was like: ‘Well, wouldn’t it be cool to see if The Nighthawks would want to do something together’ – that’s really it!
“Mark was all about it. We cut ten songs in a day-and-a-half – some of mine, a couple of Nighthawks’ tunes and a couple of old blues, too. I can’t express enough how grateful I am for his friendship and mentor-ship – and his musicianship, too. I’m so in awe of all of them! They just put out a record, Established 1972, to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and I’m inspired to be doing this in 50 years, too.”
As great a partnership as that effort proved to be, however, Stillman soars higher with his most recent disc, Just Say the Word, on the VizzTone imprint late last year.
A 15-tune set that includes 13 originals, it debuted in the No. 10 slot on Billboard’s blues chart, No. 5 spot on Roots Music Report’s radio chart and three of the songs have charted, too. Gabe was tabbed with a Blues Music Award nomination in the best emerging artist category early this year and followed it up with two more nominations in the Blues Blast Music Awards for the Sean Costello Rising Star honors and slide guitarist of the year, too.
The Costello honor was especially gratifying, Stillman says, both for the great love he has for Sean’s music and because his current band includes Ray Hangen, Sean’s longtime drummer.
Captured at Wire Recording in Austin, Just Say the Word was produced by Anson who brought out big guns to the studio. “That was a crazy thing, man!” Gabe exclaims. He’d already invited Taylor Streiff, Nick Moss’s former keyboard player, for the session, and Anson, who sat in on six-string, had already arranged for the Texas Horns — Kaz Kazanoff, Al Gomez and John Mills – to join them.
But the hits kept coming.
“I’d already been a big fan of (longtime Austin fixture) Greg Izor,” Stillman says. “His harmonica playing is so unique, and I also dig his vocal style and songwriting. He was doing harp lessons online during the pandemic, and I reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to do vocal lessons and some songwriting consulting, too.
“We got together once a week over Skype the whole summer. And then I go down to make this record and who happens to be in town from Spain, where he’s now living, but Greg Izor! He hadn’t seen Anson in quite a while, stopped by the studio and offered to play on something. It was so-o-o cool, man! He really laid down a wicked chromatic-harp track on the instrumental, ‘Susquehanna 66.’”
And Sue Foley – who captured traditional female artist and traditional album awards at the ’22 BMAs – also dropped by and sat in.
“I’ve been a Sue Foley fan forever,” Gabe says, “and I was wearing one of her T-shirts to the studio one day. I guess that Anson just texted her. The next thing I know, who shows up…!
“We were sitting next to each other at the console and listening to some songs, and she spun around in the chair, slapped me on the knee and told me that I sounded great. I thought to myself: ‘Okay, I can die now! Sue Foley just told me I sounded great!’”
2022 has been the busiest year yet for Stillman who’s pretty much booked solid through the end of the year, including a tour through New England in late November and another December run through Florida – which he toured recently as the opening act for ZZ Top. And then he and Anson are reuniting for a new album that probably will reach fans next spring.
Between now and then, however, Gabe’s eager to touch base with his fans. “I can’t wait to see you and play some new music for you and be together again,” he insists. “I hope I can give you an old, sweaty hug after the show!
“Keep an eye on the website – www.gabestillman.com.”